He leaves no tracks
in fields laid flat by winter,
this way and that
over bare, black soil,
pulling his coat closer
to fend off the cruel wind.
He carries a dark lantern
and a scythe, a sack slung
lightly, rolled and tied
with thin twine.
He moves like fog,
quiet and cold, and each night
field mice, rabbits, voles,
freeze in his wake, hares shiver,
bats and owls retreat
to barns and steeples
as he steps into the air.
The old ones tell of the Gatherer,
come to rob you of your light;
he’ll say he’s a young man but,
if you dare to meet his sloe-black
gaze, you’ll see what he’s seen –
a thousand snows, a thousand, thousand
moonless nights, the wheeling stars
dissolving, bearing witness
to his harvesting eyes.
He’s the ragged shadow
hung, fluttering, between
darkness and glass, the shapeshifter,
night-visitor, come to steal day,
to erase the shining ledge of morning
leaving only endless sleep.
(First Published – The City Fox)
Tales from Holy Tola’s Pulpit.
Tola’s pious, unctuous Ma wanted him priest,
secretly wished he’d been girl – frocked either way.
He declined. Ran away from altar boy, caught,
dragged home to thrashing, within an inch,
buckled end of the belt .Ran away from
‘Mammy’s Boy’ – “Smothering so she was.”
Punched in the head by hard-bitten polis,
forever after deaf in that right lug, cauliflower
ear for apostacy. Ran away from Monsigneur
with his wandering hands, the holy Brothers
with their leather tawse, their sins of the flesh
and ice-cold showers – their hungering eyes.
Arrived in Leeds via Glasgow Central, hooked on
Buckfast, cider, pills and public lavvy love –
took to it like mother’s milk, him,
who’d never known a nurturing breast,
almost suckled himself to death.
Outside the Arndale, on milk crate pulpit,
with the Pope in his pocket and a lung full
of holy, holy, holy, Mother of God – hail Marys
on rosary of ringpulls – a can of the juice to settle
the throat on him, Tola holds his audience
of sinners to account. Holds out a handful
of guilt and a ticket to the ‘bad-fires.’
Roll up, roll up, for Holy Tola’s one way trip,
throw him a quid for his hat
and a map for his lost soul.
(First Published – Prole)
One Bottle – Six Glasses.
This row seems more serious – we have decided not to forgive.
I’m down here with the expensive bottle I was saving
for Christmas. You’re upstairs, in bed, restlessly asleep, a frown
in your dreams. I pull the cork and pour myself a full glass,
red as an open heart. Those things we said, we meant – when hurt
we strike out like snarling strangers then crumble into remorse.
It’s commonplace. This time – another glass of wine – we didn’t
make things right, bumped away from each other, bruised, sad,
your eyes rejecting mine like an awkward visitor. A refill. My pain
rearranges itself into rage. I scavenge your selfish bones, pick your
arguments bare. Guilt settles on me like a bad debt. Reach for the
bottle, fill up the glass. There’s a chasm between us, the rift grows wider
by the hour but I am moulded in stone and hard and cold and slow. Your
familiar, gentle face is set for war. More wine. I’m drowning wounds
in wine. It stings like brine. I want you to wake up. I want to want to
wrap my arms around your familiar feel, your smell, your skin. But
I don’t. Here in the dark, alone seems necessary.
The destroyer in me is out, the last glass spilt.
(First Published – The Interpreter’s House)
Sometimes she nibbles glass
or swallows razor-blades with wine,
her mouth already cherried,
the raw, scored meat of tongue
and gums, red and bright as fish gills.
Sometimes she digs up asteroids of bone,
bites hard on them, the small, white
circlet of her teeth smashing
through cadaverous honeycomb,
life’s locket broken open, spoiled.
Sometimes she unwraps promises,
dissolves them on her lower lip,
sucks a sherbet-dab of words,
with sotto voce fizz,
feels it crackle and trickle.
Sometimes she chokes
on all the voices,
no matter how she tries,
she just can’t swallow
monologues of every day.
(pica pi·ca (pī’kə)
An abnormal craving or appetite for nonfood substances, such as dirt, glass, bones or clay.)
(From my Indigo Dreams collection – Session)
The empty beds,
small clothes unworn
now folded in a cavernous drawer.
Neat, silent ghosts.
The empty arms,
a tireless pendulum of grief,
as lonely as the dappled horse
……………………………..rocking to and fro,
………………………..to and fro
…………..in childless rooms.
The empty nights,
they nestle into dreams,
leaving small depressions
in the quilted
(First Published – Tears in the Fence also in my pamphlet Songs For Lesser Gods – erbacce)
The Woman Who Drank Us Up.
She was the woman who drank us up,
gripped us in her graveyard grasp and drained us,
until we were almost uncreated, loose skin and slack bones.
She was the woman who smeared our lids with honey
until blisters, sugar pink and sweet the way she liked, frosted views,
extinguished stars, volcanoes, whole shining landscapes.
Each day, we were tilted to her lips, a flawless set, to be unfilled,
she swallowed us, the bitter juices, iron blood, the frothy head,
savoured her duty in the way that martyrs nurse small flames.
She was the woman who pulled down moons to make candles,
pressed them in hot wax to lock in light,
who even sipped the perfect dark of dreaming.
(Second Light Competition, second prizewinner)
There’s been no spring,
just days the sky like dirty linen
draped the fells. The fields wear snow
exposing peaty flanks, cadaverous
limestone ribs, threadbare as old ewes.
The river, dragging scabs of ice
and twiggy atolls, slurs its chatter
beneath the bridge. You’re ahead,
in leather cowboy hat, old boots,
me, dawdling on the slatted bridge,
squinting for fish in umber water.
My shadow stirs the black and silver
running-stitch of trout-fry hemming
tarry leaves, pricking blebs of ochre mud
to stain the washed, reflected sheets of sky.
This grim, grey April, pearly breathed and slippery
exhales over wet grass, shakes off rain
dribbling from the craggy oxters of the fells.
Where we step, it oozes lead and rust and oily curds,
thaws backwards through the dank sheep fold.
(From pamphlet, Songs For Lesser Gods – erbacce)
sulks around us, slouches over fells;
after the downpours, filling becks
and ghylls with foaming broth,
an ebb, the mumbling air damp
and feverish. Jackdaws bicker,
chip away the hush, someone coughs,
like plates dropped, a walker stops
for his West Highland to sniff and pee.
I climb till the house is a grain on the horizon,
the river, a glossy twist of chrome and bronze,
into the mossy chill of woods, stumbling
over the pale limbs of a fallen tree,
brushing tiny spiders, abseiling on the breeze.
(From Pamphlet – Songs For Lesser Gods – erbacce)